I Tried Google Home And Now I’m Tired Of Saying “OK Google”

The voice-activated speaker is impressively smart – and a great way to set up wireless, multi-room audio on the cheap.

BuzzFeed News; Google

It’s hard to think about Google’s new speaker without thinking of the Echo and Echo Dot first. Amazon’s sleeper hit (over 3 million Echo devices have been sold since 2014) made home-based bots mainstream and set the stage for its rival, Google Home, which hits shelves tomorrow, Nov. 4, for $129.

Both Google’s and Amazon’s voice-activated speakers are powerful, artificially intelligent personal assistants that listen for a special keyword, send your voice query to the cloud, and then spit back a response via a computerized female voice. Both want to answer your questions, play your music, and control your smart home.

The main difference? Amazon released the Echo two years ago, while Google’s hardware is just coming to market now. Google’s also had a four-year lead on a consumer artificial intelligence product (Google Now was first demo’d at Google I/O in 2012), but the company's been working on the technology for much longer.

Now, both companies are competing for a place in your living room or your kitchen or your bathroom or your bedroom — or all of the above.

I’ve talked to Google Home every day since I peeled it out of its box and found that, while there are some quirks, Google’s new gadget is a strong contender. It’s smarter and works better in multiple rooms than the Amazon Echo does – but its biggest flaw is that you have to say “Google” so damn much.

People who want to have (more) real conversations with their speaker bot.

Where Google really shows its intelligence is its ability to understand contextual questions.

When you ask Home a question like “Where’s the nearest gas station?” and then “When does it close?,” Google understands “it.” You could ask “What’s the capital of Nepal?” followed by “How do you spell that?” and Google would spell “K-a-t-h-m-a-n-d-u” (the Echo, on the other hand, spells “t-h-a-t”).

People who want a smartphone-friendly multi-room audio setup and don’t like (or can’t afford) Sonos.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Chromecast Audio + Google Home blew my mind.

Chromecast Audio is an inexpensive, silver dollar–sized puck that syncs with Google Home. You can plug it into any standard speaker with an audio jack to turn it into a music streaming device you can control over Wi-Fi.

The little puck plays a crucial role in making Google Home feel like a system for your entire house, as opposed to a device for the single room it occupies. I linked my Chromecast Audio and Google Home together in a group called “Everywhere,” which let me control not just Google Home but all the audio in my, uh, home.

"OK Google, play the latest episode of Savage Lovecast in Everywhere."

With the device, Google streamed the podcast to the Home speaker in the kitchen and the cheap, four-year-old bookshelf speakers I bought on Amazon. I moved between folding laundry in my living room and making pasta in my kitchen without missing a beat. The audio was perfectly synced.

Echo isn't really set up to handle multi-room audio right now. You could buy an Echo Dot for every room and add multiple Echo devices to one Amazon account, but they won’t sync audio from the same streaming service. You could also connect Echo Dot to a Sonos Play:5 and try streaming the audio over your Sonos network, but that doesn’t work reliably. Sonos support, however, is coming to Alexa in 2017.

Speaking of Sonos, Google Home won’t play very well with your Sonos speakers. I tried to force Chromecast Audio to integrate with a Play:5. But when everything was set up, there was a delay between the Sonos speaker and Google Home. In my testing, the Google-powered multi-room setup will only work with a traditional stereo system or a Bluetooth speaker with an aux port.

Current Sonos users shouldn’t rely on Google Home as a home audio solution for this reason.

Another caveat: Casting to multiple devices messes with Google Assistant's order of operations. Each command seemed to supersede the last. For example, I asked Google Home to read me the news and then, later on, requested that it continue playing in my living room as well. The newscast started over in both the living room and the kitchen.

A few times, when Google Home was reading search results aloud, I’d say "OK Google, turn it up" to change the volume. The touch panel would show that it had increased the volume, but Google Assistant didn’t resume reading its search results.

People who want something that looks nice.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Google Home will go great with your reclaimed wood shelves and your marble side table. (Put a succulent on it!)

It has an elegant, sloping touchpad you can use to adjust the volume by moving your finger clockwise (volume up) or counter clockwise. You can also touch and hold the surface to active Google Assistant without saying “OK Google.” It’s pretty cool.

The original Amazon Echo only comes in one form: a cylindrical, almost dystopian black tower. Its successor, the second-generation Echo Dot (which can plug into external speakers), comes in both a glossy black and glossy white. The Google Home’s matte hardware feels more premium in comparison.

People who like color.

You can swap out the base with different colors and materials, like a teal-ish fabric and an all-metal copper.

People who hate setting stuff up.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed

Have you ever set up a Wi-Fi–enabled device? You're typically forced to move between the device’s companion app and the Wi-Fi settings page on your phone, then enter your network password (a tiny keyboard nightmare if it’s a jumble of numbers and letters).

I expected to go through the same ordeal for Google Home, but it was shockingly easy. I plugged it into a power source, the app detected a Google Home nearby, it played a test sound, I logged in with my Google account (which was already authenticated through other Google apps on my phone), and the speaker was ready to go in under three minutes.

People who don't like repeating themselves.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

The Echo’s voice recognition is stellar, so a lot of people were concerned that Google Home’s microphones wouldn’t live up to Amazon’s “far-field” listening technology.

Google Home was definitely better at hearing my voice than Echo Dot and marginally better than the Echo. With Google’s speaker in the kitchen, I could ask questions from the opposite side of my one-ish bedroom apartment (shown above).

People who want to save money.

There are essentially two voice-activated speakers on the market: Google Home and Amazon Echo. Google’s gadget ($130) is $50 less than its Amazon counterpart with a built-in speaker ($180). Not a significant discount, but it’s something.

Amazon’s Echo Dot, which has a small built-in speaker but is designed to connect to external speakers you already own, is much more affordable than both the Echo and Home, at just $50. You can even buy an Echo Dot six-pack and get one free, because Amazon, lol.

But the second-generation Echo Dot, even after some software upgrades, is still not on par with its larger counterpart. I often have to repeat-shout “Alexa.. ALEXA…” to get the Dot to hear me when it’s playing music.

Furthermore, if you’ve ever thought about upgrading your home audio system to Sonos, you’ll save money by buying Google hardware instead.

Google Home costs $130, Chromecast Audio costs $35, and my actually pretty good bookshelf speakers are $70 for the pair. That’s $235 total to bring music to my entire apartment. To be fair, it’s a small “junior” one-bedroom apartment. But that’s much more affordable than Sonos.

Sonos, with its wireless, smartphone-controlled capabilities, is an ideal audio solution for some. The company produces attractive, high-quality speakers – but, having struggled with both the price (almost $400 for two Play:1 speakers or $500 for a single Play:5) and the seriously frustrating Sonos app (so many taps!!!), I found the more affordable Chromecast Audio + Google Home system to be perfectly adequate for my studio. It allows the flexibility of choosing whatever speaker you want, plus the convenience of voice control.

People who want language translation.

Translation is more of a niche feature – but it’s something that Alexa doesn’t have and something that Google does very well.

When you ask Google Home, “How do you say ‘good morning’ in Spanish?” it’ll respond with an enthusiastic, “Buenos dias!” The Echo simply refers you to the Alexa app, where it spells out the translation for you.

People who have bad Wi-Fi and/or don’t have much patience.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

On my measly 5MB-per-second DSL connection, the Echo Dot performed much better. Home’s Wi-Fi connection is slow compared with the Echo Dot’s, and you can really see that play out on a sluggish home network.

To play a song on Spotify, the Echo Dot took six seconds to load the track and Home took 10. To play NPR, the Dot took six seconds and Google Home took nine.

On faster broadband, the margin was smaller, but Echo Dot still had a faster response time by one second.

People who want support for multiple accounts.

For now, every Google Home request — whether it comes from you or not — is tied to one account (the account you linked your Google Home with).

Google Assistant, which is designed to become more personalized as you use it, will file away any and every search into your history, including ones not from you, and that may affect what it starts recommending to you in the future.

Unlike the Echo, you can’t switch profiles or users (yet, at least). That means, if Spotify is your primary music service, your roommate won’t be able to listen on the Google Home speaker while you’re listening at work.

People who have Sonos.

Google Home doesn’t play nice with Sonos speakers (yet, at least). Since official Sonos support on Alexa arrives in 2017, the Echo is at an advantage here.

In addition to that, Amazon Echo Dot currently works with the Sonos PLAY:5 through the speaker’s line input. With some tinkering, you can also force Echo to work with Sonos through Github.

People who already have a ton of smart home products installed.

For now, only Nest, Philips Hue, and SmartThings products, as well as IFTTT, work with Google Home. The Echo has a huge leg up in this space. Alexa works with all of those brands, in addition to Belkin, Lifx, Ecobee, and many others.

Google is opening up Home to developers, so we’ll see more integrations in the future. But it’s still a nascent technology that doesn’t offer support for most apps and smart home tech right now.

People who don't trust Google.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Both Home and Alexa light up when they’re listening, as a visual cue to tell you when the devices are recording. Google Home records only what follows the wake word ("OK Google"). If the wake word isn’t detected, then those small snippets are deleted.

Like with the Echo, you can mute Google Home to force it to stop listening and recording. But you can’t go into “incognito mode” to prevent queries from being added to your Google dossier, like you can in the Chrome browser. You have to delete recordings retroactively, one by one, from the My Activity page.

Obviously, all of the information you’re feeding Google Home goes directly to Google, which uses the data “to better assist you with customizations like your name and interests,” according to this support page. It means Google can serve you personalized suggestions, like "You can now vote in [your state here!]," as well as more personalized ads. (BTW, if you’re creeped out, here’s how to opt out of seeing personalized ads.)

If you use Google’s search, email, calendar, or cloud products, Google already has a pretty comprehensive profile of you. Google Home probably adds little additional insight into who you are and what you like.

It’s not clear how exactly Amazon is using its Echo data, other than expanding the Alexa platform's capabilities.

People who want to access gadget history and settings when they’re not at home.

The only way you can access Google Home settings and a history of results is to be connected to the same Wi-Fi network as your device.

You can access all of your Amazon devices from the Alexa app or web app at any time, from anywhere. While you can listen to what you’ve asked Google Home at your Google “My Activity” page, you can’t view Home’s responses. That’s frustrating if you’ve looked something up on Home and want to refer back to it when you’re out and about.

People who have a Pixel, or any other Android device with “OK Google.”

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Anytime I said, "OK Google," I almost always activated both the Pixel's Google Assistant and the speaker’s — and it was deeply annoying. Any Android phone with the always-listening OK Google feature enabled will experience the same thing until there’s a fix.

And, finally, people who hate saying the word "Google."

Google is a) harder to say, and b) less pleasant to say than "Alexa." I’ve said “Google” dozens of times over the course of the week and I’m sick of it tbh.

Google Assistant engineers, if you’re reading this, please implement custom wake words (or at least more options).

So, should you ditch your Echo for Google Home?

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

I’ve been a publicly enthusiastic Amazon Echo user for about eight months and a quietly disappointed Echo Dot user for about three. Since Home’s announcement in May, I’ve had high hopes for Google’s version. In my week of testing, Google Home lived up to most of my expectations.

I was disappointed in the speed but seriously impressed by the quality of Google Assistant’s responses and the seamlessness of casting music in multiple rooms.

If you intend on using a home-based personal assistant for information, then get Google’s speaker. If you intend on using the speaker for music, it depends. Those who prefer a specific set of speakers should try a Chromecast Audio + Google Home system.

Having an existing Sonos setup? Amazon Echo Dot works with Sonos speakers right now and will officially support them next year. Google Home will probably support it in the future, but there’s no guarantee.

If Google Assistant can attract the same number of integrations to its platform as Alexa (and I think it will), then Amazon has something to be afraid of.



A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.